The Bush sins are unoriginal. We've always done torture. We've always been at war with a dehumanized (and usually dark-skinned) other . . . The cocky Bush boys were different only in their open pursuit of this agenda.
-- Robert Koehler
I've written copiously of my disgust for US liberal hand-wringing about how "America has lost her way" under the Cheney Administration, the amnesiac faction of the pseudo-left that insisted on seeing the invasion of Iraq as unprecedented. (Shall we ask the people of Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Cuba...?) These same liberals' willingness to believe a new person in the White House with a "D" next to his name would be the answer to the nation's problems was similarly maddening. It's as if everyone was born in the year 2000 and never read a history book.
Now, the willingness of so many Democrat-voting USians to accept whatever Obama does is correspondingly sickening. It's OK if the US doesn't prosecute the people who ordered torture, it's OK if the Guantanamo prisoners aren't given real trials, it's OK if the evidence of torture is not made public. Why? Because Obama said so.
I never expected Obama to change US foreign policy, so I don't find his positions surprising or disappointing, merely disgusting. But I might have expected US activists to push Obama a little harder, or at least not to praise him for doing exactly the opposite of what he should!
Maybe they just can't face their disappointment, and their shame at their own gullibility. It's easier to fall into line and believe Father Obama Knows Best.
Or maybe they know they'll never get active and fight for real, radical change, so they simply abdicate their responsibility.
Or maybe they're stupid. I don't know.
Progressive change doesn't happen from the top down. In the US, it's never happened that way. No matter what the issue - from the abolition of slavery to equal marriage, and everything in between - social progress in the US has come about only one way: through people's movements. Grassroots activism, first at the radical edge, then moving more to the mainstream - citizen pressure - pushing, pushing, pushing - by every means possible and necessary - until the movement finally reaches a tipping point of cultural attention, and drags those in power along with it. At which point the powerful steps in front of the movement and pretends to be a leader.
Obama Lovers say that this time it's different. Waiting For Obama, they say, is not top-down change, because the Obama people are organizing the grassroots. That's when I realize we're speaking completely different languages.
I understand that the Obama organization wisely and shrewdly did community organizing to get their man elected. But let's not confuse that with a people's movement demanding change. When the top organizes the community, all you get is a very agreeable populace. A positive approval rating. While the top does whatever it wants because no one is demanding they do otherwise.
After the US election, I linked to a piece by a grassroots organizer and activist, also a US-to-Canada immigrant, my friend Tom Kertes: Let's Not Get Organized by Barack Obama. (Looks like it's no longer online, so the link goes to my own post with excerpts from it.) In it, Kertes writes:
Had community organizers in the 1960's allowed themselves to be co-opted by John Kennedy, Barack Obama might not have been allowed even to vote, let alone to lead the Democratic Party as President of the United States.
* * * *
I found this excellent essay by journalist Robert Koehler at Common Dreams, and clicked through to the author's website, Common Wonders, which I had never seen before.
The reason we must keep the torture issue alive is not to exact a small measure of comeuppance from the Bush administration zealots who bent the law till it screamed, but to alter the course of history.
Thus the filing of disciplinary complaints a few days ago against 12 Bush administration lawyers, who crafted the quasi-legal justifications that made waterboarding a household word, has significance well beyond the case for their disbarment. This action, taken by a coalition of citizen organizations — from the ACLU and Vets for Peace to the Libertarian Party of West Virginia, 200 groups in total, claiming a membership of more than a million people — represents, as I see it, American citizens' furthest reach of patriotic sanity.
The Bush sins are unoriginal. We've always done torture. We've always been at war with a dehumanized (and usually dark-skinned) other, whom we have simultaneously attempted to kill and, in our armed righteousness, "save."
The cocky Bush boys were different only in their open pursuit of this agenda. They had no need for nuanced, bipartisan hypocrisy and flaunted the shadow ops of empire as perfectly legitimate tools of government. With the declaration of an endless war on terror and much of the media on their side, they almost succeeded in legitimizing the premise that the commander-in-chief and his designated agents are beyond all law, and ushering in a strange new American oligarchy.
This effort collapsed of its own hubris, as we all know, and now Hope and Change, the Bobbsey Twins of the Democratic Party, skip merrily through the wreckage, disavowing the obvious cruelties of the last eight years and urging us to "move forward" — while the extra-legal pursuit of America’s strategic interests, as defined by the defense establishment, retreats quietly to the background.
Uh, excuse us, Mr. President. The mandate you've been given is a little bigger than that, to the regret (I fear) of the Washington establishment. We want to purge the Bush era from the national soul. We want the words "never again" to hum with meaning. We want a new relationship with the world and we want our “strategic interests” to line up with our ideals, not merely because it's right but because it's the only way we'll ever be secure. And for this to happen, we have to look squarely at the truth of who we are and who we have always been.
The failure of the Bush administration to remake America — and the fact that the crimes of its attempt to do so are indelibly part of the public record — present us with the best opportunity we've ever had to confront our national flaws, at least those that flow from the bete noir known as American exceptionalism, and begin making substantive changes. All that’s lacking right now is the will. Believe me, it won’t come from the top.
"There's a vise grip on D.C.," said Kevin Zeese, executive director of Voters for Peace and a leader in the effort to make Bush officials accountable for trying to circumvent both the U.S. Constitution and international law in order to legitimize torture. The Justice Department has sat on it for five years; Congress is paralyzed by its own complicity; and President Obama lacks the leverage to buck the defense establishment even if he has the inclination (and it's not clear he does).
We won't take the country back all at once, but we have to start somewhere. And it begins with accountability. This is why I applaud the coalition's filing of complaints with state bar licensing boards against these dirty dozen Bush administration attorneys: John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Stephen Bradbury, Alberto Gonzales, John Ashcroft, Michael Chertoff, Alice Fisher, William Haynes II, Douglas Feith, Michael Mukasey, Timothy Flanigan and David Addington. In addition, the coalition is calling for impeachment proceedings against Bybee, now a sitting federal judge.
I don’t know how much of the truth will ever come out, in a way that cannot be ignored (think Germany, think South Africa), but my hope is that we begin a process that gets at all of it, that pries open every secret grave: the CIA torture research of the 1950s; the Phoenix Program of the Vietnam era; the overthrow of the governments of Iran, Guatemala and Chile; the torture training at the School of the Americas; the Reagan era complicity with the thug regimes of Central America; and so much more.
These are all products of American exceptionalism, the belief that our brutality is always benign. Where once we killed to spread the word of God, we now kill and torture in the name of democracy — and in the Bush era, we did both, a fact underscored by the recent revelation that Donald Rumsfeld's special intelligence memos to Bush had inspirational photos (an American tank at sunset, e.g.) and Bible verses on the cover: "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground . . ."
Perhaps the antidote to this self-righteous lunacy is to be found at the coalition Web site: disbartorturelawyers.com. It will happen again if we don't stand up to it now.